Anthony Brown: Young Hearts should not be written off

Danny Wilson, left, Jordan McGhee, centre, and Kevin McHattie, look dismayed at Kilmarnock
Danny Wilson, left, Jordan McGhee, centre, and Kevin McHattie, look dismayed at Kilmarnock
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Having come so far down the road with their enforced mass fast-tracking of academy prospects, Hearts should be in no rush to shelve the project even if they find themselves in finer financial fettle this summer.

With the Foundation of Hearts – and Ann Budge, in particular – expected to be in control of the club by the end of this wretchedly-difficult campaign, some supporters will be hoping for many of the young players to make way for more experienced arrivals ahead of what looks certain to be a Championship adventure next season. Everyone at Hearts, however, should hold their nerve.

While there have been plenty demoralising days for everyone connected with the club to endure this season, the young players who have been asked to find their feet in the toughest situation imaginable should not be cast as fall guys.

Many fans have been quick to make judgments on each of the youngsters who have been catapulted into the team over the past year or so, but for all that it is inevitable that opinions will always be formed on anyone playing for Hearts, it would be wrong to write any of these players off on the basis of this past year alone.

Granted, none of the current group of young players at Tynecastle have given any sustained indication that they are destined to be playing in the English Premier League in five years’ time. But neither did Christophe Berra in his early days, while Lee Wallace, who is widely deemed good enough to have earned a move south, endured plenty form dips and setbacks as he sought to establish himself in the team.

Indeed, at this time last year, Peter Pawlett looked set for the Aberdeen exit door after toiling to set the heather alight. Now, aged 23, he is widely considered to have been one of the Premiership’s best players this season.

Perhaps the most significant factor to consider with this group of young players is that, as a collective, they have rarely looked out of their depth in the Premiership despite being effectively an Under-20s team smattered with a couple of mid-rank professionals in Ryan Stevenson, Jamie MacDonald and Jamie Hamill.

It is mostly individual errors, which are all part of the learning curve, which have undermined their bid to stay in the top flight.

If anything, the signs are that they are getting stronger as a group, which is testament to their strength of character considering they have simply been thrown in at the deep end and asked to swim, regardless of their readiness.

While many of these youngsters might not have got near the Hearts first team as recently as two seasons ago, that does not mean they are not good enough to cut it with the club. Without the opportunity afforded them by Hearts’ lurch into financial calamity under Vladimir Romanov, most of these kids would have long since been discarded. Some would have dropped down the leagues, while others might have been lost to the game entirely.

However, having been pitched in en masse, most of them have at least given an indication that they are worth persisting with, especially as they are set to be playing in the less-demanding Championship next season.

Many fans will already have made up their minds about whether or not they rate Jason Holt, Jamie Walker, Sam Nicholson, Billy King, Gary Oliver, David Smith, Scott Robinson, Callum Tapping, Callum Paterson, Brad McKay, Dylan McGowan, Dale Carrick, Kevin McHattie and Jordan McGhee, but in the case of every single one, it is still far too early to make a definitive judgment either way.

The general train of thought seems to be that attackers like Walker, Holt and Nicholson are the pick of the bunch and that the defenders have toiled more than most.

This is always the way in football, however, where flair players are generally judged more favourably because they are capable of getting fans off their feet.

The defenders like McKay, McGowan and McHattie certainly shouldn’t be written off yet. All have had good and bad moments in the team. But it must be remembered that these youngsters are playing the most demanding positions in the team simply because Hearts are under so much pressure on a weekly basis.

They are more exposed than their attacking colleagues and, without the aid of a genuinely experienced centre-half to guide them, it is inevitable that, while learning their trade, they will make mistakes which result in goals.

Danny Wilson may be considered experienced in the eyes of some because he has played for Rangers and Liverpool, but he is still a young player himself, learning his trade and trying to get his career on track. He should be accompanied by an experienced centre-back, not being cast as the leader.

McGowan and McKay both showed when partnering Andy Webster last term that they have potential and even on occasions this term, such as the New Year’s derby at Easter Road, the pair have excelled together. McHattie and Paterson have undoubtedly been overplayed over the past two seasons, but the two of them have still fronted up manfully to the challenge. The highly-rated McGhee has had some harrowing moments this season, but it must be remembered that he is still only 17 and has barely featured in his favoured position of centre-back. Dundee United can get away with pitching a 17-year-old like John Souttar in at centre-half because they have other experienced players to help him through.

Hearts currently don’t have that option, hence why they are playing a back four which, collectively, is far too young for the demands of Scotland’s top flight, as evidenced by the concession of eight goals in their last two games. The lack of a natural right-back at the club has also been a major problem.

While it is inescapable that Hearts need to flesh out the squad with four or five more seasoned professionals, if only to ease the strain on the team and create some much-needed competition for places, every one of these young players, having taken one for the team this season, merit an opportunity to try and flourish in more favourable circumstances next season.

Only then can we get a truer gauge of who is likely to cut the mustard long term.